Welcome to the South Carolina Senate, where reform goes to die.
For the second straight year, a bill to strengthen ethics rules and accountability for elected officials failed to get a final vote in the Senate as the clock ran out on the session.
This year the main obstructionist was Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, who implausibly insisted that the disclosure requirements for political donors somehow limits their free speech.
But his Senate colleagues have to share the blame, and the scorn of the people who elect them. Collegiality has its limits for those who are elected to serve the people. Senators should have been able to vote cloture on Sen. Bright's filibuster so they then could vote passage on the first meaningful ethics reform in more than 20 years.
He stopped the vote on June 5, the last day of the regular session, and was expected to do the same on Thursday. But another filibuster by Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, on a bill to allow a vote in Charleston County and elsewhere on local sales taxes for school construction kept the Senate tied in knots for more than five hours. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, finished the job, insisting that the Senate should wait to pass a better bill.
Certainly the ethics bill wasn't everything it should have been. For example, it failed to include independent review and adjudication of legislative ethics complaints. Under the bill, complaints would continue to be decided by the legislative ethics committees.
That situation is akin to the fox guarding the henhouse. And if that's been stated so often it has achieved the status of a cliché, well, blame the Legislature for that, too. Year after year, ethics reforms are left in the dust as the General Assembly packs up and skedaddles.
Yet, this year's bill would have improved ethics rules. It would have expanded income reporting for elected officials, and it would have created a committee of prosecutors and public defenders to decide whether complaints should be considered as criminal or civil violations. It would have banned leadership PACs.
But the absence of major changes such as limiting the role of the legislative ethics committees convinced one good-government group, Common Cause, that the Legislature should simply start over next session.
The League of Women Voters, on the other hand, supported passage of the bill because of its good points.
The past 22 years have exposed weaknesses in the state ethics law, showing where improvements are needed. While the bill before the Senate was less than comprehensive, it would have made a difference. Too bad the Senate decided not to make a difference on ethics reform this year. Again.
It's getting harder and harder to take the Senate seriously when its members talk in high falutin' terms about the necessity of stronger ethics rules and oversight, and then do nothing.
In fact, it's gotten to be just about impossible.
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